Why did blood have to be shed?

Why did Jesus’ blood have to be shed? Why do evangelicals talk and sing about being washed in the blood of the Lamb? For example, ‘Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow’r? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? Are you washed in the blood, In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb? Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?’ (Elisha Albright Hoffmann, 1839 – 1929)

Israel’s racial memory included a strong sense of distinction between their sinfulness and God’s holiness. They were given a means of reconciling this distinction through the establishment of the sacrificial system. Why did they think this would work? It was all they had. It was what they were told. What is the relationship between the Creator of all that is and a system of animal sacrifice? Surely our scientific and artistic genius Maker could have devised something better. We relate to our Maker in terms of ethics, behaviour and values. In the human community this has always been associated with 'religion'. That is why belief in God is compartmentalised in this way.

In Judaism, the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover, on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, the most momentous event in Jewish history. According to the story of the Passover (Exodus, chapter 12), the Jews marked their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and this sign spared them from destruction.  ‘The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbour, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.’ (Exodus 12 : 1 - 11)

St. Paul, drawing a parallel with the sacrifice made by Jesus, referred to Christ as the Paschal lamb. ‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.’ (I Corinthians 5:7) Christians view Christ as the spotless Lamb of God who by his death freed mankind from the bonds of sin. Revelation amplifies this thinking.  ‘Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5 : 6 – 10) This is further amplified in Revelation 13 : 8 ‘ All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ Peter also wrote thus,  ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.’ (1 Peter 1 : 17 – 19) Jesus’ pre-existence was respected by John. ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.’ (John 17 : 24) Is this though the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church on the perpetual sacrifice of Jesus enacted by the priest during Mass? Protestants emphasise the ‘one for all’ sacrifice on Calvary in 29 AD. (Hebrews 10 : 14)

In Leviticus chapters 1–7 there are detailed instructions for offering sacrifices, offerings for informing their minds and engaging their hearts in regard to the seriousness of sin as well as the possibility and provision of a substitute. To make atonement for his sin and to gain God’s acceptance, the offerer identified himself with the animal by laying his hand on the animal’s head. When the animal died, it died for the offerer’s sins. Neither the offerer nor the priest ate any of the meat; it was all burned in the fire. This was sacrifice in its purest form—a valuable animal given up wholly to God. Along with the burnt offering, offered twice each day, was the grain offering of fine flour, oil, frankincense, and salt, which expressed gratitude to God and served as a way of asking the Lord to remember the offerer with favour (Leviticus 2).

By using the blood of the animal in this way, God was demonstrating in dramatic fashion that it was the blood that atoned for Israel’s sin. The blood cleansed the tabernacle, the priests, the people, and the land from the defilement caused by the sin of the people. There was blood on the veil, blood on the horns of the altar, and blood poured out. Everywhere the sinner looked was an unavoidable statement about the pervasive nature of sin and need for atonement. This shedding of blood is a substitutionary act. Therefore, the last clause of Leviticus 17:11 could be read either “the blood ‘makes atonement’ at the cost of the life” (i.e., the animal’s life) or “makes atonement in the place of the life” (i.e., the sinner’s life).

'The sacrificial provisions in Leviticus taught the Israelites that God can be approached with the blood of a worthy substitute. And while all of these sacrifices might seem like an unbearable burden to us, wouldn’t you be relieved, as an Israelite, to know that, instead of paying the penalty for sin yourself, God would accept a substitute in your place? Yes, there was certainly a cost to these sacrifices. Imagine the expense of taking the best animal in your herd down to the temple in Jerusalem just to be burnt up. That was the animal that would have produced the best offspring, and it wasn’t easy to give up. Imagine the time burden, especially if you didn’t live in Jerusalem. You would have to travel and find a place to stay. Imagine the emotional or spiritual burden as you made this trek, knowing that you would have to identify and confess your sin to the priest in offering your sacrifice. But also imagine the burden rolling away. When you slit that animal’s throat and watched it burn, and the priest declared your sin forgiven, imagine the sense of relief you felt. You would think, ‘It should be me. I am the one who deserves to die. But this innocent animal has become my substitute. This animal has died so I can live’. This was good news.' (Nancy Guthrie)

Today when we say that something was “a real sacrifice,” rarely do we mean that blood was shed. For us, sacrifice means giving something up or taking something on that costs us a little money or comfort or convenience. Sacrifice in the Bible, however, is the bloody reality of a bellowing animal being butchered on an altar. Imagine the noisy violent resistance of the animal, the spurting of blood, the feel of pulling the animal apart, the smell of its burning flesh and bones. Imagine the emotional and spiritual impact of offering this sacrifice, knowing that it was your sin that made this death necessary. And imagine the frustration in knowing that you’ll be back tomorrow or next week because you will sin again.

Why did Moses lay such a burden on the People of God? He did so because he believed God was commanding him to do so. It is easy for us to question his understanding. Was Moses also using the sacrificial system as a means of social control? The People of God were a fractious, complaining lot. (Exodus 15 : 22, 16 : 1 - 4, 17 : 1 - 4) Numbers 11 and 12 describes them thus. 'The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”' (Numbers 11 : 4 - 6) They were also easily given over to other customs and practices. Moses was one of the greatest human beings ever to have lived. His influence through the history of the Jews is incalculable and continues. It is a fact that Jews are disproportionately influential and successful in many walks of life today. Israel is a success story in the middle east. It is the only democracy. It functions as a rational entity. Israel will always make peace with anyone who seeks the same. Israel is mercilessly opposed and outnumbered by the whole of Islam which has a doctrinal rejection of its existence. Jews have survived the hostility of many of the world’s empires. Dov Greenberg has written, ‘What would Passover be without its intimate link with Shavout? (The commemoration of the giving of the Law.) What would Israelite freedom be without the revelation at Sinai? Imagine the Bible as a narrative of a mere cultural or ethnic group. We would read about the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. We would read on with enthusiasm of how they won their liberty and were led to a land of their own. Then we would read about how they merge into the wider landscape, married the Canaanites, Jebusites and the other people of the ancient Near East, and vanished into time, irrevocably. We survived because we carried the Torah with us into Israel. We are who and what we are because of a momentous faith, a faith that proved stronger then the greatest empires in history.’ (The Science of Jewish Survival)

Whereas it is understandable that it is the Jews’ special relationship to God that identifies them, it is still not clear why the ritual slaughter of animals was necessary. It could have been because the essence of the distinction between the Jews and others was moral in nature. The Israelites were conscious of awesome supernatural calling, formation and providence. They had a sense of divine purpose. Their cohesion as a people was enforced by the sacrificial system which upheld the distinction between God and their weak and sinful humanity. Sin in relation to God had to have a remedy. This was what all the blood was for. Did Moses creatively order the sacrificial system due to limited understanding, circumstance and exigency? The scheme of sin, costly sacrifice and expiation was criticised by later prophets. If God did not really want animal sacrifice did he want and need the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus? He did not but we did. The Christian Gospel is seen more clearly in contrast to the Old Testament sacrificial system. It is beautiful and wonderful but sobering and awesome as to its cost.

Before the death of Christ, the Jewish law required regular blood sacrifice offerings on behalf of sins. Hebrews 10 :11-12  advocates that this need changed with the shed blood of Christ: "And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God." Christ's sacrifice was now sufficient and no further blood sacrifice is necessary. Hebrews 9:11-18 also expresses that the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed toward what Jesus would later provide. Verses 13-14 explain, "For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (compellingtruth.org)

The sacrificial system became the establishment. But the prophets saw through it and preached against it. King David had a personal relationship with God, he was ‘a man after God’s heart.’ (1 Samuel 13 : 14) Two of his Psalms record his rejection of the sacrificial system. Psalm 40 : 6 - 8 reads ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened - burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come— it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” Psalm 51 : 16 -17 reads ‘You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.’

Isaiah in his time spoke against the cult. Chapter 1 : 1 - 17 reads ‘“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’

Hosea 6 : 6 reads ‘For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.’ Amos 5 : 22 reads ‘Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.’ Micah 6 : 6 - 8 reads ‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ The prophet Jeremiah condemned practices associated with Moloch as showing infidelity to Yahweh. ‘And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to set apart their sons and their daughters unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into My mind, that they should do this abomination; to cause Judah to sin.’ (Jeremiah 32:35)

In the time of Jesus the sacrificial cult of the Temple in Jerusalem was big business. We know that Jesus was critical of this. ‘Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21 : 12 – 13) Jesus also prophesied the destruction of the temple.  ‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21 : 5 – 6) This happened in 70 AD when the Romans laid waste the city. Some of these stones are still there at the bottom of the Temple Mount across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives. You can touch them. Jesus was not part of the priestly establishment. The synagogue movement had spring up during the exile in Babylon in the 6th Century BC. There was no Temple there, of course, and so Jews formed congregations to worship simply and without sacrifices. Over the centuries this way of worship continued. The Pharisees attended synagogues. They became the anti-establishment party. Both John the Baptist (although he was from a priestly family) and Jesus identified with the synagogue rather than the temple. There was also a group called the Essenes who were a community of radically anti-establishment ascetic Jews who lived at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Some scholars think that John the Baptist spent some time among them before his public ministry.

Jesus was part of the prophetic tradition of personal encounter with God which began with Abraham and reached its Old Testament heights with David and the later great prophets. When speaking to the Samaritan woman he met at Jacob’s Well, he said to her, ‘“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4 : 21 - 24) At his last meal with his disciples ‘While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14 : 22 – 25) Jesus therefore abolished the sacrificial system of Judaism and substituted for us Holy Communion in its place.

In the spiritual economy of ancient Israel, the blood was where the life existed. Blood sacrifice was life sacrifice. It was the life rather than the blood that mattered more. Thus it was Jesus’ life that mattered more than his blood. ‘Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?’ may mean more positively, ‘Are you invested in the redeeming life force of Jesus?’ Blood sacrifice originated in the awesome supernatural connection between God and the Israelites as they escaped ancient Egypt. The Christian Church turned this into liturgy. But Quakers (the Society of Friends) and the Salvation Army do not have sacraments. Salvationists hold baptism and communion not to be essential. The life of personal faith is what matters. Sacraments are only outward signs of this. The Salvation Army statement of faith reads ‘We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has, by His suffering and death, made an atonement for the whole world so that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. We believe that repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit are necessary to salvation.’ The Society of Friends also known as Quakers ‘believe that there is something of God in everybody. They do not have clergy or rituals and their meetings for worship are often held in silence’. They are respected for the pacifism and humanitarian activism.

Prophet versus priest, synagogue versus temple – this dynamic continued throughout the Christian centuries. When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 312 AD he decriminalised Christianity in the edict of Milan the following year. Thereafter many clergy became civil servants. A strong reaction then occurred with more committed Christians, both men and women, monks and nuns setting up communities in the deserts of Egypt and elsewhere. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a rejection of the cult of the mediaeval church in favour of a return to Biblical personal relationship with God Christianity. In the ensuing years of the Church of Scotland the same dynamic persisted as establishment moderates sought to keep evangelicals at bay. This struggle led to the Disruption of 1843 and the formation of the Free Church. Today the battle is over. The liberals have ruthlessly expunged evangelicals from the Church of Scotland and have adopted the values of the present times and culture even to the extent of promoting the woke agenda. The formation of large presbyteries, the closing of many churches and the herding together of congregations is all the work of the liberal establishment. It is about property and money and the management of decline. It is not about renewal and revival and personal faith.

Christianity applies distinction between our Maker who is good and humanity which is not good with the remedy provided in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. The sacrificial system was ineffective however. It did not work. It did not mitigate and repair human sin. It did offer discipline and the Law developed details for every aspect of life and living. This became a great burden, self-defeating and counter productive. St Paul understood this clearly. ‘So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.’ (Romans 7 : 4 - 6)

Unlike other religious practices in the near east of the time, Israelites were forbidden to practice human or child sacrifice. Abraham did not have to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22 : 1 - 19). The later Israelites were commanded ‘And thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.’ (Leviticus 18:21) ‘Moreover, thou shalt say to the children of Israel: Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I also will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people, because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile My sanctuary, and to profane My holy name. And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and put him not to death; then I will set My face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go astray after him, to go astray after Molech, from among their people.’ (Leviticus 20:2–5) But some disobeyed.

Ancient peoples throughout the world practised human and child sacrifice. Archaeologists have discovered human sacrifice sites in Ur, Jericho and in Syria. Human sacrifice is well-attested in Central and South America, from the many building or construction sacrifices found in the structures Aztec Teotihuacan, Toltec, Mayan and Aztec ‘skull racks,’ or the mass combined child and llama sacrifices in the Chimú culture of Peru. They were still doing so when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century AD. Lest we feel superior, recent evidence that pre-Christian Druids in Britain committed cannibalism and ritual human sacrifice perhaps on a massive scale adds weight to ancient Roman accounts of Druidic savagery, archaeologists say. After a first century B.C. visit to Britain, the Romans came back with horrific stories about these high-ranking priests of the Celts, who had spread throughout much of Europe over a roughly 2,000-year period. Julius Caesar, who led the first Roman landing in 55 B.C., said the native Celts "believe that the gods delight in the slaughter of prisoners and criminals, and when the supply of captives runs short, they sacrifice even the innocent." First-century Roman historian Pliny the Elder went further, suggesting the Celts practised ritual cannibalism, eating their enemies' flesh as a source of spiritual and physical strength. (Africans also did this – Idi Amin former President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 did so.) Perhaps the most incriminating evidence is the 2,000-year-old, bog-mummified body of Lindow Man, discovered in England in the 1980s. Lindow Man's manicured fingernails and finely trimmed hair and beard suggest that he may have been of high status—possibly even a Druid himself. At least one thing appears nearly certain about the ancient twentysomething: he was the victim of a carefully staged sacrifice. Recent studies have revealed that Lindow Man's head had been violently smashed and his neck had been strangled and slashed. He may have been sacrificed to persuade the Celtic gods to halt the Roman advance. The idea jibes with something Julius Caesar wrote: In times of danger, the Celts believed that "unless the life of a man be offered, the mind of immortal gods will not favour them."

Michael Fry in his book ‘The Scottish Empire’ attests to the human sacrifice of Scottish missionary Rev James Chalmers in New Guinea in the South Seas as late as 1901. ‘What he did not realise was that he had been designated the human sacrifice... somebody brought a great club of stone down on the back of his skull. A slash to the gullet finished him off, and his head was severed. The men standing around at once cut up the still quivering flesh and handed over the bits to their women, who added them to a stew of sago. Others slaughtered Chalmers' companions outside. They were all eaten up in the great feast which now began.’ (p229, 230) (Critical race theory? Lived experience?)

Was Jesus a human sacrifice? He was not killed ritually for reasons of expiation. He was condemned for blasphemy. He was then judicially murdered as a supposed political rebel. His was a self-sacrifice. His was a divine self-sacrifice. There also must have been a connection between the sacrifice of life by the shedding of blood and the fact of human temporality, that is, death and its relationship to humanity's original and continuing disobedience. That is problematic for us. It is an explanation of our finitude which beats down on us. We are held to be responsible for our own deaths. Adam and Eve are. But are life and death, death and life, not part of the order of creation? Is eternal life not impossible here on earth with its scarce resources? Do we not have to leave this life in order to find immortality, eternal life? Is that not what Jesus revealed to the world?

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: replies@robertandersonchurch.org.uk